Woodwork in Early Years
I specialise in woodwork within early years education.
Woodwork provides a unique learning experience for young children. It is so rich in so many areas of learning and development and it is an activity which children really enjoy, being absorbed for extended period of time. It’s very common for children to be engaged for two hours. It encompasses creative thinking, maths skills, scientific investigation, physical development and coordination, developing language and vocabulary, and much more.
It has the potential to build self esteem and confidence. This is really for a combination of reasons Through being empowered to use real tools, by being given some responsibility, accomplishing tasks that they initially feel to be challenging, gaining new skills and finally taking pride in their creations.
I’m passionate about the depth that woodwork has to offer. I have worked as an artist in residence in early years settings for many years, introducing children to many activities to encourage creativity. Woodwork has consistently provided the children with a profound experience. I’d love all children to be able to have this experience. Sadly there is now very little if any practical woodwork offered to primary or secondary children so for many this experience in early years maybe their only experience of using tools and making creations in this way. In our changing world I also feel the skills to make and repair are important as is our ability to think creatively. Detailed woodwork information is at the foot of this page.
Woodwork Teacher training is also provided for Early Years practitioners
My book, Encouraging Woodwork in Early Years Education is available to order at £20. For details: Woodwork book
Example risk assessment form pdf: Example Woodwork Risk Assessment
Health and Safety tips: Health and safety checklist
Suppliers: Woodwork Equipment
EYFS learning and development and woodwork: EYFS and woodwork
Parents information sessions are also provided.
Parents can be apprehensive about their child engaging in woodwork and an informative session can help allay fears and encourage parents to offer support.
Oak House Nursery School Parents Information Evening:
Over fifty parents and staff attended an excellent Information Evening with a Guest Speaker: Pete Moorhouse, who is an Early Years Specialist and ‘Artist in Residence’ at a Children’s Centre in Bristol. Pete outlined the benefits of providing woodworking activities for the pre-school children, explained the measures that can be taken to avoid accidents and outlined the wonderful cross curricular learning opportunities that working with wood can provide.
He showed many wonderful photographs of his work with the children and answered lots of questions from both parents and staff.
Sue Marshall, Headteacher
Woodwork in Early Years Education Information:
The following topics are covered below:
Learning and development
Creating a woodwork area
Woodworking around the world
Why not? Fears and concerns
Health and Safety
Woodwork provides a unique learning experience for young children. It is rich in so many areas of learning and development and it is an activity which children really enjoy doing, being absorbed for extended periods of time. It encompasses creative thinking, maths skills, scientific investigation, physical development and coordination, developing language and vocabulary, and much more.
It is wonderful for building self esteem and confidence. This is for a combination of reasons; through being empowered to use real tools, by being given responsibility, accomplishing tasks that they initially feel to be challenging, gaining new skills and finally taking pride in their creations.
I’m passionate about the depth that woodwork has to offer. I have worked as an Artist in Residence in early year’s settings for many years, introducing children to many different provocations to encourage creativity. I have found woodwork has consistently provided the children with a profound experience. With the decline of woodwork in primary and secondary schools this could be children’s only experience of working with tools. Woodwork provides a wonderful medium to explore creative thinking and creativity, increasingly important qualities in our changing world as are the skills to make and repair.
In this book I am focussing on woodwork with children in their pre-school year but the principles and methods are perfectly suited to reception and primary age children alike. I hope this book can provide encouragement and practical know how to help you introduce woodwork safely to your children.
Why Woodwork in Early Years Education?
The first thing visitors notice when they observe our children working with wood is their deep levels of engagement and concentration. Secondly they comment on how long the children seem to remain absorbed in their explorations. Many people are surprised that we consider introducing woodwork to young children, largely with concerns over safety. We have been successfully introducing woodwork safely to pre-school children for many years with no serious accidents.
Woodwork has much to offer children as it is so rich in learning opportunities and has many possibilities for creative exploration. It is essentially a huge win win. It is an activity that they greatly enjoy, being deeply involved and concentrating for sustained periods and it provides a rich multitude of associated learning and development.
Children immediately feel valued. Once involved, the delight, satisfaction and pride in their own work and learning is clearly visible. This sense of empowerment and achievement provides a visible boost to their self-esteem and self-confidence.
At first the children are “taught” in a traditional sense how to use the tools and try techniques in a safe and appropriate way.
As they make their first few tentative taps with the hammer you can tell that they are often a little apprehensive and question if they will be able to do it, but very quickly they are banging in nail after nail with confidence and delight.
As soon as they have mastered this basic skill they can move into open ended creative exploration, joining various sections of wood to make all sorts of creations.
Woodwork allows the introduction of new layers of learning as new tools and skills are introduced once the children feel confident – starting with hammers, screwdrivers, and a saw, then moving on to introduce drills, clamps, wrenches, pliers, spanners and so on. Children develop through their own learning at their own pace and find their own challenges.
As the children explore the tools and their possibilities their creative thinking and imagination really begin to emerge.
Woodworking in early education has it’s origins in the late 1800’s. Several pioneering educational philosophers advocated the use of woodworking with young children. The Sloyd system of education in Scandinavia encouraged woodworking as an important developmental resource and the Sloyd movement was seen to influence educational thinking in several countries around the world at that time. It was embraced by Froebel, the founder of Kindergarten who’s ideas were by embraced by leading English educators. Working with the hands was thought to impact on brain development and give learning greater relevance and context.
Woodworking was then commonplace in nurseries right through the 1950’s. With school resources being limited it was an ideal activity, but with the rise of manufactured toys and readily available resources it began to decline. Then in the 80’s and 90’s there was a culture of over zealous health and safety polices. These were at the expense of opportunity irrespective of the benefits and the low levels of risk. This increased concern about litigation and many activities perceived to contain risk were stopped completely including woodwork. This also coincided with curriculum focus switching away from practical skills in higher schools resulting with many children having no experience of practical skills or working with tools whatsoever. Thankfully the climate is now changing and there is a renewed interest in Early Years woodwork, supported by the government adopting the recommendations of Lord Young’s Health and Safety Review (2010).
Learning and Development
The big bonus of woodworking is that it is full of associated learning and development with many aspects of the EYFS encompassed.
Personal and emotional development
In terms of personal and emotional development practitioners notice a profound impact on the individual child. Children are empowered by being respected and trusted to use real tools. They clearly take great pride in their achievements and take pleasure in accomplishing complex tasks and learning new skills. The combination of these elements helps build self-esteem and confidence. Children often persist at challenging woodworking tasks for extended periods. It’s not unusual for a child to spend an hour and a half deeply engaged so woodwork can be seen to have an impact helping develop sustained concentration.
Woodwork provides another medium in which children can express their creativity. Initial emphasis is on developing skills but this immediately extends into open ended creative explorations. There are many opportunities for problem solving and thinking creatively: “How can I best join these pieces”, “how could I make a …”, “How can I use the tool to…”, “How can I get nail to stand up straight…”. Working with wood also develops spatial thinking as they construct three dimensional forms.
Woodwork provides many opportunities to connect thinking from other areas of learning. The unexpected often happens in unusual ways. When picking up fallen nails one child suggests it would be easier with a magnet – after previously investigating magnetism!
I feel it is important children must be able to make their own decisions and construct their own learning. It crucial not to do “set” projects such as bird boxes as these will often lead to frustration and disappointment and do little to promote creative thinking and problem solving.
There are endless opportunities for numeracyand exploring shape, space and measure. Many mathematical aspects are related such as: matching, classification, counting, measuring, comparison, shape, size, weight, balance, two and three dimensional shape names and so on.
Scientific investigation is explored by looking at how tools work and investigating aspects such as why the saw gets hot, how hard to hit the nail, how to correct the angle of a leaning nail, how to lever out a nail, etc. The material properties of wood can be investigated, for example, floating, burning. Investigation into trees and growth can offer another line of enquiry.
Woodwork is another area that can stimulate communication and develop vocabulary and language skills. In project development children express ideas and dialogue ensues and they discuss, reflect and modify as their plans evolve. This develops their language of thinking. New technical and describing vocabulary can be introduced to enable the children to talk about their work in more depth. The process of learning to use tools also builds the ability to understand instructions and improve listening skills.
Woodwork provides many opportunities for physical development as the children learn to handle tools with increasing control. There are fine motor skills (holding a nail, screwing) and gross motor shills (hammering, sawing) and some movements involve pushing/ pulling (saw) and others are rotational (screwdriver, wrench). Hand-eye coordination is developed for example whilst hammering. One handed tools (screwdriver, wrench) and two handed tools (hand drill) tools are experienced.
Knowledge and understanding
In terms of knowledge and understanding the world,children gain a deep understanding of tools and how they work. They can investigate wood as a material by researching its properties and explore the context of wood and trees. The processes also develops their knowledge of construction and design.
Practitioners and parents are often concerned about the potential risk and possible litigation. Woodwork is actually a low risk activity if it introduced and supervised correctly. It also provides children with an opportunity to experience risk in a controlled way, allowing them to make judgements and naturally self-risk assess. If they are going to hit the nail hard they do know to move their fingers away. Of course there will be small injuries from time to time such as banged fingers or a small cut but certainly nothing more than other playground injuries. A parents information evening can be helpful to reassure that it is safe and have parents get a better understanding of all the benefits. I would recommend starting introducing woodwork during the pre-school year ( 3-4 year olds). It is also important to be aware of children that may need additional support. An example risk assessment form can be downloaded. See the resources section.
Many school activities were affected by over zealous health and safety policies in the 80’s and 90’s. At the time the feeling was that health and safety was paramount but this was at the expense of opportunity irrespective of the benefits. This climate of risk aversion was heavily influenced by the increasing litigation and compensation culture. Fortunately the climate is now changing as pioneered by the Lord Young Review of Health and Safety. The recommendations of the review, “Common Sense, Common Safety” were immediately accepted by the Government in October 2010. The emphasis of the report was to encourage settings to embrace risk in a positive sense and not to allow it to limit valuable opportunities available to children. The report advocated a ‘shift from a system of risk assessment to a system of risk–benefit assessment’. For further reading, Tim Gill’s book, No Fear is a wonderful insight into these issues.
It is important to develop the children’s understanding of wood as part of their making sense of the world and gaining knowledge. In terms of woodwork this can be exploring the context of wood: thinking about where wood comes from, talking about the different types of tree, thinking about how they grow. It’s a great opportunity to get out into the woods, investigate trees; leaves, roots etc. Seeing a prepared section of wood can seem a bit abstract so it’s good to develop understanding that it does come from inside the tree. Planting a tree can provide more context and helps develops an understanding of growth.
Again learning can go in all sorts of directions, for example: exploring different leaves in detail on a light box, examining the different colours and vein structures; exploring making prints with leaves; investigating the different things that grow on trees or animals that live in trees and so on.
Another aspect is investigating wood as a material. What’s made of wood? What are the uses of wood? Investigate its material properties; wood floats, wood burns, wood creates sawdust when cut, wood gets hot when rubbed and so on. Explorations can be extended in a number of different directions, perhaps after burning wood the burnt wood can be used to make charcoal drawings or by making simple boats that float in a water tub.
Getting started: Creating an woodworking area
The first thing to decide upon is a suitable space. It depends very much upon your setting but woodwork can work equally well indoors and outside. It is good to try and choose an area where there are few distractions as the children really need to be focussed and keep looking at their work when they are hammering!
Working outdoors is great but if it is very cold it can be off putting to the children especially as they are not moving around much and having several layers of clothing can restrict movement. It’s important to do all we can to ensure it is a positive experience for them.
If you do need to be indoors many people are surprised that it’s really not that noisy, (using soft woods make the difference), so it can work well in the room and the mess is no more that with many other activities. I tend to have the children sit at a table during the first sessions so they can really take their time to explore working with the tools and really concentrate.
An old table and a workbench for sawing wood are all that are really needed to start with. The tools could be readily accessible or brought out when needed. This very much depends upon your setting and the particular children as to what will work best.
Getting started: Wood
In terms of wood there is no substitute to using balsa wood to start with. It is very soft and easy to hammer into thus the children quickly gain confidence and in no time they will be knocking in nail after nail. It’s also perfect for learning to screw and saw. The drawback with balsa wood is that it is very expensive due to low worldwide stocks – so it is really best used for the introductory stages as basic skills are acquired and then have the children move straight on to soft woods.
One way to test if wood is soft enough is to see if your finger nail indents a little and leaves a mark when you scrape it along the surface. Pine, cedar, fir, larch, redwood, poplar, lime, and spruce are all good for the children to work with.
Soft woods can be bought from any timber merchant but you should be able to get enough off cuts by asking parents for contributions and sourcing from carpenters and builders off cuts. It’s also relatively easy to find sustainably grown softwoods (woods grown on tree farms to ensure an endless supply of wood); this means you’re not contributing to deforestation and will always have a supply of wood for your projects.
Hard woods are best avoided – they are difficult to hammer and screw into and could discourage children. There is also a danger of nails rebounding
Preformed wood such as hardboard and MDF are best avoided. MDF does not contain the level of toxins it used to but does create an irritating dust when sawn and should not be cut by children. If used at all the preformed wood should be presented as ready cut shapes prepared off site. Getting thin slices of cedar from a saw mill would be a great alternative and then these could be cut into more interesting shapes with a jigsaw. Plywood tends to splinter easily so is best avoided.
Including natural wood can be a good addition, using sawn sections from a branch or adding sticks and so on. A large tree stump can also make a good solid surface for practicing hammering nails into and the end grain is very easy to hammer into.
Balsa wood bundles can be bought from a number of suppliers. (see suppliers list in the resources section). I find lengths of 25mm x 25mm box section are perfect to start with and thin sections of balsa wood that can be cut into sections are good for joining to the box section with nails or screws. Some smaller lengths of 10mm x 10mm would be good to learn to saw with, but very quickly they will gain ability and confidence and will want to cut much thicker wood!
Getting started: Tools
To get started you will need a basic toolkit. Having the right tools does make a big difference, for example a hammer with a short handle with good grip, and a reasonable weight with a large head would be excellent however a long handled pin hammer will make the tasks more difficult leading to frustration. A starter kit should include: hammers, screwdrivers, a saw, a hand drill, a couple of G clamps and lots of nails and screws. We use a regular old table and a small workbench which is good to hold wood being sawn or drilled. The toolkit can be added to over time as the children’s knowledge and skills develop – woodwork lends itself to slowly adding new skills and tools. Children also really enjoy using wrenches and a small battery screwdriver (used as a drill) with drill bits.
Most of the tools are standard but there are three items I would strongly specifically recommend:
The 8oz Stubby Ball Pein Hammer as it really is perfectly suited to young children.
Fiskars hand craft drill & drill bits. This drill is perfect for young children to hold and the mechanism is enclosed.
Bahco tool box saw. This Swedish saw is the correct size to really allow the sawing to be successful and build confidence.
Suggested tool kit with approximate prices:
Workbench – folding type – (best with the lower part of the legs cut off to make it a better height) £25
Short stubby hammers £3.50
Screwdriver (cross head) £2
Junior Hacksaw £4.00
G clamps £2.50
Short stubby screw drivers £2
Hand drill £10-15
Drill bits £10
Battery screwdriver and hexagonal drill bits £25
Tape measures/ rulers £5
Wood glue £5
Nails Screws Nuts Bolts
A study solid wooden work bench with a vice would also be a great addition to any woodworking area but these can be quite expensive.
To start with I use the 25mm round nails with a head. These are a perfect size to use with the balsa wood and are easy to hold and great to gain confidence with. Once they have the skill down they can really hammer away with any nail.
We start with small screws. No.8’s, ¾ inch are perfect, to make the task relativity easy and so develop confidence. Always use cross head screws as they are much easier.
Getting started: First steps
When I introduce woodwork the emphasis of the first couple of sessions is becoming familiar with the tools, acquiring skills and gaining confidence. Initially we just learn to use the hammer and then start to join pieces. Then
screwing and joining. These two basic skills already allow much creativity as the children make aeroplanes, sculptures and so on. I then go on to introduce the drill (and G clamps) as this can make it easier to screw in softwoods.
As soon as they are confident with the balsa wood they can move on to soft wood such as pine. I generally start with them sitting at a low table this allows them to take their time and investigate at their own pace.
At first you can often see on the children’s faces that they think this task is going to be a real challenge and are a little apprehensive. Very soon after getting their first couple of nails in they are happily banging in nail after nail and you can see their delight and satisfaction.
It is important to explain that tools have a specific purpose and should be respected and returned to where they belong afterwards. Be careful to ensure that children don’t walk off with tools.
If working with a group of mixed experience I try and have children explain and demonstrate to the group how to use the hammer, screwdriver etc.
When I introduce the hammer I initially start with a 1:3 supervision ratio. This allow the support to ensure they develop confidence and makes sure
they are using the hammer safely. Obviously with more staff a larger group can work at the same time. We initially use balsa wood and 25mm round nails with a head. I start by showing how to hold the hammer in the middle of the handle and show which end to hit with. I emphasis the importance of looking at where you are hitting all the time and the importance of not distracting others. We talk about how it might feel if we bashed our finger. I then demonstrate how to hold a nail with finger and thumb, then demonstrate gentle bangs first whilst still holding the nail upright. Then once the nail is standing on it’s own, they move their hand away and hold the wood firmly away from the nail. Finally they hammer with more vigour until the nail is right in.
I have discovered that “stubby” hammers are undoubtedly the best. These are actually adult hammers but with short handled to enable work in confined spaces but they are ideal for children. They still have a certain weight to them which you need to easily hammer the nail in. They have a relativity large hitting face and they are easy to control. Stubby hammers generally come in 8oz and 10oz weights and some are claw type and other ball pien. I’d recommend the ball pien 8oz, being safer with the round end for starting off with. It’s good to also have a claw hammer in the toolkit as they are good for removing nails.
Screwdriver and Drill
It is best to use short cross head screwdrivers. These are much easier for children to control and learn to use.
Explain how to turn the screwdriver and have them experiment turning in both directions to see how the screw goes into the wood and how it can be removed.
It can help to first make an small indentation with a sharp point in the balsa wood to make it easier to start the screw off, twisting it in slightly with finger and thumb so it stands up. This can be done with a sharp pencil, large nail or bradawl.
In soft wood it is easier to turn the screwdriver if a small hole is drilled first, otherwise it can get quite stiff and hard to turn which could be off putting.
There are several types of hand drill, I particularly recommend the Fiskars Craft drill as the mechanism is enclosed. It’s good to instruct correct use turning it in the right direction and keeping the drill upright so that the drill bits don’t snap or get bent.
A small battery screwdriver that takes hexagonal fitting drill bits works well as a drill and can be very popular. As it is actually a battery screwdriver it rotates slowly and safely and is very manageable for children.
Show the children how to hold the saw with one hand and show that the other must hold the table well away from the saw. The wood being cut must be held firm in a vice or workbench. It is important that the workbench is firm, it may need the practitioner to help steady it, if using a light workbench.
When introducing the saw, show the children how sharp the saw is. Get them to gently feel the teeth. Explain the importance to keep the saw in a straight line otherwise is easily get stuck and hard to push/pull. It can be easier for them to start with a back stroke. Show how to get into a rhythm of strokes. It’s also interesting to observe the sawdust.
When a child is sawing, one to one supervision is needed at all times. This is to ensure the child is using it correctly and to support them but more importantly to ensure other children don’t pass in front of the saw. Other children love to watch – but ensure they stand well back. This is the situation of highest risk if a child gets in front of the saw so we need to be vigilant.
Sawing can be tricky and some wood is harder to cut than others. Different saws are better for different woods but the most important thing is that the saw is sharp. I particularly recommend the Bahco tool box saw which is perfect for young children and good for most woods.
Logic takes you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.
Woodwork has wonderful potential to develop creativity and creative thinking.
It is crucial that open ended exploration is encouraged as much as possible, allowing the children to follow their interests and develop their own inquiry based learning. As the children explore the tools and their possibilities the children’s creative thinking and imagination really begin to emerge.
When doing more involved projects with more defined outcomes it important to take time to explore different options and investigate possibilities.
Thinking creatively is a skill that can envelop and extend to all areas of learning. Woodwork provides many opportunities to think in this way, it encourages imagination, coming up with new designs and creating models. There are countless opportunities for problem solving. “How can I best join these together?” “How can I make the wheel turn?” “How can I get the nail out?”
Creativity is also about making connections, bring ideas together from different areas of learning and again woodwork provides an ideal medium allowing this way of thinking.
Woodwork encourages possibility thinking(questions such as what if?) byenabling children to find and refine problems as well as to solve them. Encouraging children’s possibility thinking can be seen as building their resilience and confidence and reinforcing their capabilities as confident explorers, investigators and decision-makers.
Not only does creative thinking help in all curriculum areas it is an important life skill. It can help us with decision making and how we respond to opportunities. It develops our ability to see options and evaluate alternatives which can help in many life situations such as illness and bereavement.
Projects that last over several sessions, weeks or even months can be a great way to extend learning. They can foster in depth investigations and build upon developing skills and bring different areas of learning together.
Sculpture is always a very engaging for children and provides a great way to expand developing woodwork skills.
This project could start by by looking at pictures of sculptures to get a deeper understanding and to start to discuss types of sculpture and then evolve by exploring making sculptures in paper and card.
The children could then move onto creating their own wooden sculptures. As soon as children are joining wood they are in effect creating three dimensional objects. I’ve found that a great starting point, much as in the same way a piece of paper is a starting point for a drawing, is to provide a piece of wood vertically mounted on a base. I then provide a huge box full of all sorts of off-cuts, with a variety of shapes and sizes.
The children then choose pieces they like and start to construct their sculpture, choosing to join with nails or screws or even wood glue. They use
a whole array of skills and there are many opportunities for problem solving and thinking creatively: “How can I best join these pieces”, “How can I use the tool to….”.”How can I get nail to stand up straight…”.
Making sculptures with wood also develops spatial thinking as they construct three dimensional forms and also provides many opportunities to connect thinking from other areas of learning.
I’m always amazed just how thoughtful the children are in their arrangements seeming to have a natural understanding of aesthetics!
Another dimension of a sculpture project could be to work together creating larger sculptures. Here it would be good to discuss options and follow the children’s interest. Various ideas may evolve; a totem pole like structure, a giant spider web, a giant windmill and so on.
With sculpture projects it can be interesting to combine other materials, adding drilled bits of coloured plastic, bits of pipe and so on to make a real mixed media sculpture. The sculptures are fine to leave out in the garden and look great for months.
This project developed: Creative thinking and problem solving; Physical development and coordination; Language and communication; Understanding and knowledge of tools and design/sculpture; Personal confidence and esteem; Maths skills.
Projects: Sound Garden
This is another project that can further develop woodworking skills. This project could start by exploring metal objects in an open ended way and, becoming familiar with metal as a material. Then sounds that metal can make can be explored, investigating thoroughly by hanging objects to listen to their sounds – every object creating slightly different sounds. Metal items could be arranged on the floor to see how they sound as a drum, and then experiment with rattly bits, scraping sound and so on.
After the metal and sound exploration the children can go on to think about designing their sound garden and then the final stage is the construction. Children can be fully involved in all the construction, sawing the wooden supporting structure, taking it in turns to get through the really thick sections and bolting it together. They can start to add the metal objects using their woodworking skills: Sawing, drilling, some joined by nailing, some by screwing and sometimes using the wrench and coach bolts.
Being designed by the children ensures it will be engaging and has elements they like. There is rarely a moment when a child is not playing in our sound garden, with a wonderful mix of different sounds. This project can develop: Understanding different materials, Understanding sound, Understanding of construction; Creative thinking and problem solving; Physical development and coordination; Language and communication; Understanding and knowledge of tools and design; Personal confidence and self esteem.
Project: Wooden Frieze
This is a project to create wall panel for our local hospital where many of the children were born. I feel is great to have the opportunity to create permanent work for the community, showing that children do have something to contribute to society and that young children should be valued and respected.
This project involved making a panel; we first made the panel then joined many pieces of wooden off cuts to create wonderful collage. There was a lot of hammering, drilling, sawing and screwing. After the panel was completely covered we painted it, thinking carefully about colour, mixing our own shades.
In the end it looked really striking and was much appreciated by the hospital brightening up a dull corridor. The children came to the hospital to install the work and the local press celebrated the event.
This project developed: Thinking about the wider community, creative thinking and problem solving; Physical development and coordination; Language and communication; Understanding and knowledge of tools; Understanding of design; Personal confidence and esteem.
Project: Outdoor studio
This was a project to build an outdoor studio and lasted over the whole year. It evolved out of our need for an outdoor studio . We felt the children were capable of helping design and construct the building and that the entire process could further develop their skills and open up new areas of learning. This project did require some prior knowledge of carpentry and basic building so needs professional input. This project illustrates that with any larger design project it is a wonderful opportunity to involve children, be it a building extension, a garden makeover or rearranging the classroom.
After looking at many examples of buildings and discussing them the children became architects exploring designs using lollypop sticks, glue and paper. Then we made small model houses in balsa wood and explored construction investigating different ways of joining. To extend the learning further we investigated wood as a material by researching its properties and explore the context of wood and trees.
We then started on the building, firstly we all dug the foundation, watched the concrete foundation being poured and after the frame was erected we constructed the walls. There were endless opportunities for numeracy and exploring shape, space and measure. Many mathematical concepts were involved: matching, classification, counting, measuring, comparison, shape, size, weight, balance,two and three dimensional shape names and so on.
This project incorporated many avenues of exploration. We spent several sessions investigating pulleys as we used a pulley to lift the roof joists. We explored using different pulleys and lifting a variety of objects. It was wonderful working as a group to lift up the heavy roof joists and the children were captivated by how easy it was to lift heavy objects.
Another area of exploration was investigating construction, looking at methods of building. This was explored in a number of ways: We made many towers using corks and cardboard, really thinking about how to make strong rigid structures; buildings were made out of blocks; a cardboard house was constructed; bolted wooden constructions were made, wood was joined in a variety of different ways.
The final part of the project was to make a chimney to make sure Father Christmas could get in! This was constructed and again lifted into play with our pulley system set up in a tree above the building.
The new outdoor studio now provides a wonderful outdoor space for our woodwork and other creative explorations.
This project developed: Knowledge of construction and design; Creative thinking and problem solving; Physical development and coordination; Language and communication; Understanding and knowledge of tools; Personal confidence and esteem; Maths and numeracy skills; Investigating science concepts.
This is a wonderful way to extend learning and skills acquired whilst working with tools. Start by collecting a few old appliances such as a fan, keyboard, CD player and so on. The children then work on deconstructing the appliances. It will often necessitate the purchase of a new set of screwdrivers as there all sorts of screws types in these appliances.
The children are captivated discovering what is inside the cases and really focus as they investigate the different components. Learning often branches out is all sorts of directions as the children investigate what interests them. It may be the way objects stick to a magnetic speaker, it could be noticing the way that cogs work, or the way a motor turns on it’s axil.
To continue working with this project we then make constructions out of the deconstructed parts. Sometimes they become robots, sometimes sculptures or mobiles. The children like to combine parts with their wooden constructions and as designs develop their imagination really takes off and whole narratives evolve.
This project developed: Creative thinking and problem solving; Physical development and coordination; Language and communication; Understanding and knowledge of tools; Understanding of new components;Understanding of design; Personal confidence and esteem.
Woodworking around the world
It is good to know that there early years settings all around the world offering woodwork to their children. Working with wood is a universal language that crosses cultural boundaries. Different countries have slightly differing tools but in essence it is a similar experience – one that deeply engages young children.
Woodworking is well established in Early Years nurseries in New Zealand, Unites States, Japan and Scandinavian.
In Scandinavia, from the late 1800’s there was the Sloyd school system which made much use of woodwork and very much encouraged practical learning throughout school education developing complexity over time. The Nåås teacher training college in Sweden promoted this hands on learning and had some impact around the world but closed in the late 60’s. This influence has now decreased but there is still a commitment to provide woodworking from many early years settings in Scandinavia.
In New Zealand it is very common for nurseries to have a woodwork corner and this is very much encouraged in their curriculum, Te Whâriki, which includes woodworking skills on a list of learning goals that educators should aim to teach the children during their time in preschool.
There are also many schools in Japan doing woodwork. I collaborate with a Japanese colleague on an International research project to promote woodworking Early Years, and their nursery school has been providing woodwork for over 30 years, themselves originally influenced by the Sloyd system.
In recent years there has been more interest in Forest School education again being inspired by practice in Scandinavia. Forest school is a type of outdoor education in which children visit forests and woodlands, learning personal, social and technical skills. It has been defined as “an inspirational process that offers children regular opportunities to achieve and develop knowledge and confidence through hands-on learning in a woodland environment”. Some forest school sessions include the use of some tools to further investigate wood.
The renowned schools of Reggio Emilia, provide many opportunities for children to investigate wood in its context as a natural material. They explore through placing and arranging and investigate elements such as bark and leaves but currently do little with real tools.
I believe is fundamentally important that all children in the setting get to experience woodwork. We introduce the basic woodworking skills toall our children in small groups. Later woodworking activities are more about children choosing to join or initiating a woodworking session or project.
I feel it is crucially important to have all children have the initial introductory sessions as some children would keep away. The vast amount of social conditioning, from observing parents roles, to roles in stories and on television, plays a part in stereotyping woodwork as a male activity.
If they do not all have access to the initial sessions the effect can be that some girls tend not to join woodwork and many boys crowd in, again making it harder for girls to join. It also makes sense to ensure male and female staff facilitate the woodwork sessions to avoid further stereotyping and present positive role modelling.
There also a number of children that can feel apprehensive about using tools and likewise ensuring that all children have the initial experiences ensures they have the opportunity to build their confidence and overcome fears.
I’m often asked what are the gender differences are with their engagement in woodwork. Girls and boys both equally get deeply engaged and are very positive about working with wood and tools. If anything there is perhaps a slight developmental advantage for girls being a little more coordinated but the differences from child to child are much greater. With the longer term projects there is no noticeable gender difference with who chooses the activities.
There are a number of children, particularly boys, that have trouble in engaging for extended periods on an activity. I have found woodwork often draws these children in . They seem to be particularly attracted by the tools and enjoy constructing and really do get engaged and concentrate for significant periods of time.
Children with english as their second language usually have no difficulty understanding as the introductory stages can be clearly visually demonstrated. It may be useful to visually explain the processes on a one to one basis.
Children with additional needs may need extra support. This obviously depends very much on the individual child but with careful planning and enough staff support these children can also participate and gain enormously from the experiences that woodwork has to offer.
Younger Children: 0-3 Years
Right from birth I would recommend providing young children with wooden objects to play with. Wood is very tactile, has a certain warmth and often has a pleasant aroma.
I would recommend having a number of wooden objects and toys in the nursery for young hands to experience and play with. In terms of their environment it also good to expose them to natural materials as much as possible, through choices of flooring, chairs, storage and so on.
A peg hammer bench is very popular with young children and builds hand eye coordination and develops motor skills. Having a set of play tools can also be a good resource to encourage role play.
Providing a collection of natural wood blocks and tree sections can provide a great way to start exploring wood and experiment with placing and arranging and basic construction. It is worth ensuring that these are smooth and well sanded to prevent any splinters.
I do not encourage using real tools with the 2-3 year group. The risks of injury are increased due to their still developing coordination. Of course some children are ready and with the correct supervision would be fine but generally I’d recommend waiting for the 3-4 pre-school year.
Woodwork really fits within the Schools for Sustainable Development agenda. We are living today in rapidly changing times, more so than in any time in history, with global economic shifts, depletion of resources, significant population growth and environmental change. Many jobs early years children will be doing in the future do not currently exist. Skills to be adaptive and think creatively for new solutions will be more important than ever. Woodwork is an activity that strongly encourages these skills, developing creative thinking and problem solving skills and bringing together learning from several different curriculum areas.
In addition woodwork builds up children’s skill base to be able to design and make. It also develops ability to be able to repair. Both of these attributes can help counteract elements of our consumer society. The capabilities to make and repair rather than consume and dispose.
Another element of sustainability is resourcing wood responsibly from responsible managed forestation but the majority of wood used should be recycled utilising off cuts. It is also a good idea to plant trees, and have the children develop an understanding of where wood comes from and the time it takes to grow, and also thereby replenishing some of the wood stocks used.
Why not? Concerns and fears
Many practitioners are daunted by the prospect of introducing woodwork. Our research shows this is for a number of reasons:
Many adults perceive that wood working is a high risk activity and that there is a high probability of serious injury. This is not the case, woodwork is actually a low risk activity if it introduced and supervised correctly. It also provides children with an opportunity to experience risk in a controlled way, allowing them to make judgements and naturally self-risk assess. If they are going to hit the nail hard they do know to move their fingers away. A Japanese colleague has been woodworking with young children for over 30 years with no serious injuries other than the occasional bumped finger or a small cut.
Many teachers have little experience of working with tools so can feel unconfident to introduce the activity. This can be easily remedied with some very basic staff training which can be a lot of fun for staff and allows them to share the experience of learning something new. It is certainly not necessary to have a specialist come in to do woodworking sessions with the children. Details of available training below.
Additional reasons stated were potential noise and mess but again our experience has found these to be unfounded.
To enable all staff to feel confident with working with tools and introducing them safely it is a good idea to have some basic training. Many staff will have had very little experience of working with tools themselves.
Training sessions can be a lot of fun and whilst explaining all the associated learning and development , there is also opportunity to be creative with wood and share the experience of what it feels like for the children to be creative in wood.
Workshops can cover:
-Learning and development aspects of the EYFS.
-Gaining an understanding about risk and safety issues.
-Explanations of the most suitable tools for young children and instruction on how best to use them.
-Looking at the most suitable woods.
-Explanations on how to set up a woodworking area.
-Suggestions for activities, open-ended explorations and longer term projects.
-Practical session for practitioners to explore the tools, gain confidence and share the experience of making creations in wood.
Health and Safety
Ensure children are given clear instructions on how to safely use the tools.
Start with 3:1 ratio for hammering and drilling.
Sawing always supervised 1:1.
Ensure the hand not holding the saw is away from work and holding the bench. Ensure no children are in front of the sawing area. Children love to watch – this is the most important aspect to look out for.
Avoid nearby distractions – children need to be focussed and looking at what they are doing.
Avoid hard woods. There is a danger of nails rebounding.
Wear goggles if there is any danger of material getting in eyes.
Be aware of any children with unpredictable behavior and monitor appropriately and be aware of any child that may need additional support, for example with poor coordination.
Remove any protruding nails from work before taken home.
See the resources section (p85) with link to risk assessment form which gives more detailed information
Working with real tools has the potential to offer children many new experiences. It provides another medium for children to express their creativity and explore problem solving. It may be their only chance to experience woodwork in their entire education as fewer schools offer woodwork in primary or secondary. Woodworking is a kinesthetic experience that embeds a deep memory. Once having experienced and learnt how to use tools it becomes a part of their vocabulary.
I appreciate that it takes some effort get started with woodwork, with sourcing the tools and wood and ensuring staff feel confident and that you have sufficient staff ratios to ensure it is introduced properly.
It is very much worth the effort and I hope this book can help get you started. Once everything is in place you won’t look back and you’ll be amazed by their levels of engagement and the depth of their explorations.
It would be wonderful if every child could have these experiences. As a practitioner, it is such a joy to see them so engaged in an activity. It is a delight to watch their creativity and see their pride in their achievements – it always leaves me feeling uplifted.
Woodworking journal articles:
Early Years Educator Volume – 13 No. 11 March 2012
Early Years Update – Issue 97 April 2012
Nursery World – 14 May 2012
No Fear – Tim Gill, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation